The Waiting

Richard slid three quarters into the vending machine and weighed his options. There weren’t many. He hadn’t bought anything from one of these machines in a long time. Prices shocked him. $3 for a candy bar? Jeez. The only thing these coins are good for’s gum. 

With no other change, he pressed the coin return and slid the money back into his coveralls pocket. 

Now what? 

The cafeteria wasn’t open. He’d already looked. How can a hospital close its only place to eat? Weren’t people here all the time? And hungry? 

He remembered what his Doc said. The one he’d gone to for years. The man who was never afraid to tell him what he needed to hear. 

“You’re tipping the scales, Rich. Two hundred and fifty pounds is a lot. Need to cut back those calories. Don’t want you to die before your time.”

 I haven’t eaten much today, but I guess I don’t really need nothin’. And maybe Hank doesn’t either. Anyways, I can’t leave him upstairs by hisself for long.

The two men worked together at Henderson Towing & Repairs. Both men were in their late forties with greying temples. Hank was faster, but Richard was better at diagnosing. Neither talked much, but they were a good team. Even in the small, noisy shop, they could tell what each other wanted with hand motions or a quick nod of the head. 

They’d worked together almost thirty years, but Richard didn’t know a lot about Hank’s life, except he was married. Only once had he gone anywhere with Hank, after work, when both of their wives had other things to do. Sitting at a table in Dick’s Bar, drinking beers, there wasn’t a lot of talking as they watched a game on TV, but Hank did tell him he bowled in a league every Thursday night. 

“I tried it once,” said Richard. “Wasn’t any good at it. Couldn’t make the pins fall down.”

After that, Hank announced his scores to everyone in the garage each Friday morning. He usually averaged about 180 something, which Richard guessed was pretty good.

They were at work today when the phone rang, which the tow truck driver answered. “Yeah?” He listened a moment. “Hank?” he said. “It’s for you.” 

Doris sometimes called work and asked him to stop at the store to pick up something. Or to tell him she was at her sister’s and wouldn’t be home until after dinner. He’d go to 7-Eleven. He liked their nachos and burritos, already made, and would squirt lots of that cheesy stuff on top. 

Hank wiped the grease off his hands with the dirty cloth he kept in his back pocket and walked slowly to the phone. 

 “Hello?” he said. There was silence, then his facial expression changed. The creases of his mouth turned downward, and his voice started shaking. Richard heard him say: “My wife? … Oh, God … The hospital? … I’m coming.” He sank to his knees on the cement floor, leaving the wall phone dangling. 

 Rushing over to help him off the ground, Richard said: “I’ll take you.” Hell, I can’t let him go by hisself. 

Richard didn’t ask what happened. He didn’t need to know. There was one hospital in town. He drove as fast as he could, screeching his red Chevy truck to the Emergency entrance, guessing that’s where they should go.

“I’ll park. Go in. I’ll be there in a few…”

When Richard found Hank in the upstairs waiting room, he didn’t look good.

“Have you seen the Doc?” Richard asked.

“Yeah.”

“What’d he say?”

“I don’t know. It was a woman. Said Doris’s in bad shape. An ambulance brought her. A car accident. Lots of bleeding and broken bones. Something’s ruptured. They’re operating on her.” He paused. “I don’t remember everything. The doctor tried to explain things. All I know is we have to wait. It might be a long time.”

He spoke haltingly, staring at the blank wall in front of him. 

Hank knew Richard would stay at the hospital with him, the same way he passed the right tool when he needed it, without being asked. 

“Maybe I can find you something to eat,” said Richard, which is how he ended up at the vending machine.

What should I do now? I don’t know how to get him anything. I don’t know what’d help.

He noticed the gift shop and went in. It was filled with flowers and stuffed animals. Not much else. Bending over, he picked up the daily newspaper. Maybe Hank would like to look at the sports page. He grabbed a Snickers bar too. At least I don’t need quarters. He gave the gray-haired cashier a $5 bill and wondered if she looked like Doris. She was plain, but friendly. Had a nice smile. Thanked him for what he bought. 

Richard took the change she handed over and headed for the elevator, even though his Doc would have told him to take the stairs. When the doors opened, he could see Hank talking to someone. Maybe it was that doctor. What did they call the blue clothes she’s wearing? He’d heard it on T.V. Scrubs, or something funny like that?

The woman’s hand was on Hank’s arm. She grabbed him as he collapsed to the floor, a loud moan coming from deep inside.

Richard stood there, twenty feet away. Time stopped. Oh God. It’s Doris. He had no idea what to do. This wasn’t the same as handing Hank a tool he needed. What could he say to someone who must have just lost the woman he’s been with almost all his life?

Moving closer to Hank, he bent down, touching him on the sleeve. Richard thought of when his mother died and remembered others trying to comfort him. The pain was unbearable. He flashed on Aunt Zelda, the tight hug she forced on him. At least that made him feel alive.

For the second time, Richard helped Hank off the floor, while hugging him as hard as he could. 

“Come on,” Richard said. “Come home with me. It ain’t a time to be alone. The wife and I have an extra bed. She’ll fix us some food. Stay with us tonight.”

Hank looked blankly at him, as if they were strangers, shaking and moaning with the pain of loss. “What will I do without her?”

“I don’t know,” said Richard, “I don’t know.”

Susan Lundgren

Susan Lundgren writes memoir, fiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared inYou’re Doing What? Older Women’s Tales of Achievement and Adventure, Art Ascent, Persimmon Tree, Redwood Coast Senior Center Gazette, California Writer’s Club Literary Review, and Writers of the Mendocino Coast anthologies.